Australian company SILEX: its laser uranium technology could promote nuclear weapons spread
the worry with SILEX laser technology ”is that it is particularly suited for nuclear proliferation
Uranium on the laser’s edge, Canberra Times, August 6, 2012, Michael Richardson Enrichment systems produce nuclear bomb-grade matter as well as fuel for civilian reactors. The United States is on the verge of approving a licence later this month for the world’s first plant to enrich uranium on a commercial scale for civilian nuclear power reactors
using laser technology developed by an Australian company.
The Australian firm, Silex Systems, says that its secret laser system is cheaper than existing methods of turning natural uranium into fuel for reactors that generate electricity. The plant could be in operation in the US by 2016. It would be run by a partnership of three leading nuclear suppliers, America’s GE Energy, Japan’s Hitachi, and Canada’s Cameco, the largest uranium producer.
This could give the partners a significant share of global enrichment
business and enable them to offer buyers a complete commercial package
that included construction of reactors and supplying fuel……
But enrichment is controversial because it can produce nuclear
bomb-grade uranium as well as fuel for civilian reactors. Some critics
of the impending move to a more advanced method of concentrating
fissile uranium elements using lasers say it comes at a critical time
and will encourage the spread of nuclear weapons, even though the US
and Australian governments have put strict safeguards in place to
prevent unauthorised use of the laser technology.
At present, uranium is mostly enriched with arrays of thousands of
spinning centrifuges, a mechanical and relatively simple technique
that even rogue states can copy. Both Iran and North Korea have done
so. Concern is growing that Iran and North Korea will soon enrich
nuclear bomb-grade uranium using this older centrifuge technology,
prompting other countries in the Middle East and Asia that feel
threatened to consider going nuclear – and to take a close look at
laser enrichment as they do so.
North Korea has already built a small nuclear arsenal using plutonium
reprocessed from used reactor fuel. Uranium enrichment is a second,
and some say faster, pathway to making nuclear weapons.
SILEX is an acronym for Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation.
The company, a spin-off from the Australian government’s nuclear
science and research establishment at Lucas Heights, south of Sydney,
is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. The company’s website says
that its laser-based SILEX process provides much higher enrichment
efficiency compared older centrifuge and gas diffusion methods,
offering significantly lower costs.
An assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Scott Kemp, says that the worry
with SILEX laser technology ”is that it is particularly suited for
nuclear proliferation, even better than centrifuges. SILEX can also
enrich fuel-grade uranium to weapons-grade in fewer steps than a …
Professor Kemp was until 2011 science adviser in the Office of the
Special Adviser for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the US State
Department. Writing in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, he says that before the plant is licensed the US
government or Congress should commission an independent inquiry into
whether its benefits outweigh the added proliferation risk. Other US
nuclear scientists and arms control specialists have previously called
for similar action.
At least 27 countries, including North Korea and Iran, are known to
have shown interest in laser enrichment. The most recent is India,
which like Pakistan and Israel, has developed nuclear weapons in
defiance of the treaty to prevent the spread of these weapons. In
April, a South African firm said that it had sold one of its advanced
lasers to an Indian government atomic research laboratory.
Professor Kemp says that China and South Korea have recently begun
courting US laser-enrichment experts. A US State Department assessment
in 1999 of the SILEX technology and the plans to start commercial
processing conceded that a laser enrichment facility ”might be easier
to build without detection and could be a more efficient producer of
high enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program.” The 16-page
assessment specifically raised the question of whether, if SILEX led
to a breakthrough in low-cost enrichment, others might pursue the
process with an accompanying nuclear proliferation risk?
‘It seems likely,” the State Department said, ”that success with
SILEX would renew interest in laser enrichment by nations with benign
intent as well as by proliferants with an interest in finding an
easier route to acquiring fissile material for nuclear weapons.”…..
No comments yet.